WEST ORANGE, NJ — At West Orange Town Hall on Thursday, Aug. 4, Democratic Sen. Richard J. Codey, who represents parts of Essex and Morris counties, and Republican Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, who represents parts of Morris and Somerset counties, announced bipartisan support for legislation to better combat the recent wave of car thefts in New Jersey. Joining the senators were many local police chiefs from Essex County, including West Orange police Chief James Abbott.
This announcement came just one day after a car was stolen from Columbia Street in West Orange with a child in the backseat. The vehicle was recovered a block away, with the child still in the car and unharmed. It appears that the perpetrator abandoned the vehicle after realizing a child was in it.
“In the state of New Jersey we had double the amount of stolen cars this year than were stolen last year. How ridiculous is that?” Codey, a former New Jersey governor, said during the press conference. “What we want is to get at the ringmasters and there’s a lot of layers to get to them, but unless we get to them, we’re not going to solve this problem.”
Citing recent data and discussions with local law enforcement officials, Codey and Bucco said that car theft has become a crisis in the state. They lamented the fact that many recent car thefts have been organized by gangs that employ juveniles to commit the actual theft, pointing out that one recent case even involved a 14-year-old.
“These gangs are turning children into criminals by recruiting juveniles to steal cars,” Codey said. “Until recently, they typically focused on searching unlocked cars for key fobs to take the car. Now, law enforcement is encountering kids entering homes looking for fobs or car keys.”
One reason these gangs enlist children is because, currently, minors convicted of auto theft are not sent to juvenile detention for their first offense.
The new proposed legislation will aim at bringing the criminal recruitment of minors to an end by punishing the leaders of auto theft crimes with harsher penalties. Additionally, with this legislation, a juvenile who is found to have received a stolen vehicle would have to serve 60 days of community service, and a juvenile who has previously been adjudicated delinquent for a motor vehicle charge would be required to get a minimum 60-day period of incarceration.
According to the senators, the state is on pace to see more than 17,000 vehicles stolen this year.
“This is a crisis in New Jersey. It’s not a suburban issue, it’s not an urban issue. It’s happening in every county,” Bucco said during the press conference. “This bill will strengthen the penalty phase for juvenile and adult leaders who conspire to commit these crimes. We’ve got to provide a deterrent. We have to provide a consequence for those who decide to get into this criminal enterprise.”
Bucco and Codey said that, while car theft is not a new problem in New Jersey, the uptick that has been seen since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is worrying and outpaces national statistics.
“The numbers are disturbing, but more troubling is the way the thefts are occurring and the growing use of stolen cars in committing violent crimes,” Bucco said. “The methods and intentions of the criminals have evolved. Car thefts have expanded well beyond simple property crimes. Now the safety of our law-abiding residents is at risk.”
At the press conference, the senators pledged to bring their respective caucuses together in a show of bipartisan support with the aim of bringing this new legislation to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk in the fall to be signed into law.
“It is certainly an honor to be here today as we roll out this legislation, and it’s an honor that both Gov. Codey and I could work together on this legislation,” Bucco said. “Let’s face it, this is not a Republican and this is not a Democrat issue. This is a public safety issue, and it is in every one of our backyards, from the top of the state all the way down to Cape May.”
Photos Courtesy of Joseph Fagan